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Men's Health

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Gray Anatomy

Should men color their gray hair or celebrate it?

Causes of gray hair still a gray area continued...

The gist of what I learned is this: A shaft of hair is basically colorless. Cells in the follicle, called melanocytes, add pigment. The pigment, called melanin, comes in two basic varieties — eumelanin and phaeomelanin — which combine in different proportions to create the vast range of hair colors, from jet black to ash blonde. For a long time researchers assumed that, with age, melanocytes simply become less efficient at making pigment. That may be partly true. But recent studies at Harvard University have shown that age brings a steady decline in the number of these pigment-producing cells.

Contrary to popular belief, having kids or a stressful job won’t turn hair gray. But oxidation, the damaging effect of unstable oxygen molecules — which have been linked to many aspects of aging — may be one of the causes of gray hair. Researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin reported in 2006 that the process of synthesizing melanin generates a slew of unstable oxygen molecules. When the Humboldt team exposed healthy and productive pigment-producing hair follicle cells to oxidation, the cells began to die off.

Of course heredity plays some role, since premature graying tends to run in families. And there are racial differences, too. Among white males, hair typically starts turning gray in the mid 30s, according to Tobin. In Asians, it begins in the late 30s, and in African-Americans, in the mid 40s. From then on, the chances of turning gray increase by 10 to 20% each decade. Tobin says, “A well-known rule of thumb in the field of graying hair is that by the age of 50, 50% of the population has 50% gray hairs.”

I’m there.

Coloring gray hair: Does he or doesn’t he?

Gray hair, alas, is all but inevitable for most men. But that doesn’t mean we have to live with it. Drug store shelves are crowded with hair color products that promise to wash out the gray and restore hair to its youthful hue.

David Cannell, senior vice president of R&D at L’Oreal USA, one of the leading hair products manufacturers, offers some advice in navigating the bewildering number of choices. “For men’s products, there have been generally four categories,” Cannell says:

  • Progressive coloring. The “Grecian Formula” approach uses lead acetate, which darkens with exposure to air. Hair is colored gradually, so you can stop when you’ve achieved the effect you want.
  • Direct dyes. Made of colored molecules that coat hair, these are quick and easy to apply. The drawback: They typically wash away after only 6 to 10 shampoos. On the plus side, that means you don’t have to worry about gray roots. The dye is gone before they can show up.
  • Semi-permanent color. Also called tone on tone, this uses peroxide to allow color molecules to enter the hair shaft, thus creating a more permanent color. These products usually take 5 to 15 minutes to apply and last about twice as long as direct dyes.
  • Regular permanent color. This uses both peroxide and ammonia, which can lighten the natural pigment of hair, allowing men to select shades lighter than their original hair color. These products are also used to create highlights. The drawback: if you don’t like the color, you’re stuck with it until hair grows out — or you dye it over again, which can be tricky.

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